Over the sound of the surf crashing against the shore makai of Don’s Mai Tai Bar Thursday afternoon comes the familiar strains of “Over the Rainbow,” as played on a vibraphone.
Manning the mallets on the instrument, a relative of the xylophone and marimba, is Sean Wilkinson, an award-winning percussionist who played with Don Ho, Johnny Mathis and Lionel Hampton before settling in Kona and picking up a regular gig at the Royal Kona Resort.
Wilkinson, a native of Dublin, still speaks with a slight Irish accent as he tells tales of his many decades in the music business, starting with tours of Europe, then five years in Las Vegas before moving to Honolulu to be a musician for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
He turns 90 today, and still plays twice-a-week shows at the Royal Kona Resort.
Wilkinson said he tells a joke during those shows about the piano lessons his mother made him take, starting when he was 12.
“The lessons I didn’t enjoy, but the music, I kept going on my own,” he said, recounting an instructor who “was very ill-humored if you didn’t play something right.”
His father was a successful building contractor and told Wilkinson to study architecture.
Wilkinson said that would have been a good career, but it just wasn’t for him.
When Wilkinson told his father he wanted to be a musician, the elder responded, “That’s good, but what are you going to work at?”
In later years, after seeing his son in concerts around Europe, his father came to be proud of him, Wilkinson said.
He isn’t sure what the secret is to being able to still play live music as a nonagenarian, but he has at least one guess.
“I don’t smoke,” he said. “I don’t drink. I’m kind of boring.”
Music, he added, is “kind of a drug.”
Wilkinson was abstaining from smoking when everyone else was lighting up, including substances heavier than tobacco, in jazz clubs decades ago, he added.
He’s also an avid walker, who allowed his driver’s license to expire when he noticed his vision become less clear.
His memories, however, remain vivid. Wilkinson recounted a concert at a Canadian national exhibition. Someone with Johnny Cash called and asked if Wilkinson could play with the legendary singer.
“I asked, ‘Do you want to rehearse?’” Wilkinson said. “He said, ‘No, just follow me.’”
So Wilkinson did.
“Most of his stuff was easy to play,” he added.
On tour with bandleader and percussionist Spike Jones, Wilkinson was instructed to keep his own playing simple, so he didn’t show up the headliner.
He didn’t just pick up more musical skills over the years.
“Lawrence Welk wanted a drummer who tap-danced,” Wilkinson said. “So I learned to tap dance.”
He paused a beat.
“Don’t ask me to do it now,” he added.
Wilkinson became friends with other celebrities who weren’t musicians.
Comedian Bill Cosby is a jazz enthusiast, Wilkinson said, and the two became close when Wilkinson worked in Las Vegas.
Cosby used to come on stage during shows unannounced and Wilkinson would pass the comedian an instrument to play.
A fan of Latin American music in addition to jazz, Wilkinson also lamented the downsizing of bands over the years, to the point where most groups are now just guitar music, he said.
His early years in music “was a time of dancing,” Wilkinson said. “Couples used to dance together.”